N.C. waste accident prompts worry here: Louisville has own hazardous threats

James Bruggers, The Courier-Journal, Kentucky, October 7, 2006
When Mike Brown woke up yesterday and learned of a major accident at a hazardous-waste plant in North Carolina, the first thing that came to his mind was relief.
“I thought, thank goodness we don’t have any of those facilities,” said Brown, deputy director of the Louisville Metro Emergency Management Agency, which is responsible for emergency planning and response.
But Brown and others cautioned that Louisville has its own hazardous materials challenges — the complex of Rubbertown chemical plants, a steady flow of chemical rail cars through the region, and the danger of accidents on Hospital Curve on Interstate 65 near its junction with Interstate 64.
Hospital Curve, Brown said, sees some of the most hazardous materials shipped by trucks in the nation. And unlike many other metro areas, Louisville has no way to reroute those shipments away from its urban core — a problem, he said, that could be resolved with the planned eastern Jefferson County bridge.
The incident in Apex, N.C., occurred at EQ Industrial Services, a consolidator and processor of hazardous waste, sending up fireballs and a plume of smoke and chemicals.
It prompted officials to urge 17,000 people to flee and 44 to go to hospitals. The plant treats, stores and disposes of a wide variety of materials.
In the Louisville area, there are hazardous-waste collection and transfer businesses, but they operate on a smaller scale and must move chemicals within a few days of their arrival to places such as the North Carolina site.
Louisville officials have looked at improving rail car safety and security but decided to wait for a resolution of litigation brought by the railroad industry and the Bush administration seeking to overturn a rail-safety ordinance in Washington, D.C.
The industry and federal government say railroad regulation is a federal role.
For Middletown-area resident Niki Nichols, the scenes of fireballs exploding in the night sky on television and reports of hospitalizations and massive evacuations in North Carolina brought back frightening memories from her exposure to a toxic gas.
Nichols said she was living in Southern California in the 1980s when hydrogen chloride, which forms an acid when it comes in contact with moisture, escaped from a nearby chemical plant.
“I just thought I would die,” she said. “My insides were burning, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know whether to go back to the car. I felt like I just wanted to lie down.”
Martha Williams recalled growing up in the Rubbertown area in the 1960s and 1970s, and the huge blast that destroyed part of the DuPont plant in 1965, killing 12 workers and injuring 37.
“It knocked you out of bed,” she said.
Companies today have many regulations that require them to report to authorities the hazardous materials they use or store, and continually review their safety procedures.
The facilities that store the largest amounts of flammable or explosive chemicals also must identify worst-case scenarios and show they have a plan in place to minimize the risks.
Based on the risk management plans filed by companies in the metro area, The Courier-Journal in 2004 identified 15 facilities capable of risking the health of 10,000 or more people. Five were Rubbertown plants.
In some cases, injuries could occur 15 miles away.
The companies are aware of the risks and conduct continuous reviews of their safety procedures, said Greg Brotzge, spokesman for the Louisville Chemistry Partnership, a collaboration of eight plants.
“They try to identify things before they occur,” he said.
Reporter James Bruggers can be reached at (502) 582-4645.jbruggers@courier-journal.com

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